The Production of SAM by Michael Cox
SAM was a big breakthrough for me as a producer of television drama. I had worked on CORONATION STREET and A FAMILY AT WAR but in both cases I was a junior partner in someone else’s enterprise. HOLLY, a six episode psychological thriller by Robin Chapman was my first solo flight as a producer. It was a modest success but SAM was the big challenge. It did not have a very large budget and it was a period piece with a large cast but I was very lucky to get it because John Finch was a hugely successful writer and I knew the scripts would be excellent.
My job was to tackle the logistics of a long series, find the designers and directors and, above all, the cast which would bring John’s television novel to life. Here I had the help of a brilliant Casting Director, Doreen Jones, who toured the schools of Yorkshire with me to find Kevin Moreton who played the young Sam. Kevin was not trained for the stage but he was a natural actor with a quiet, serious quality which was ideal for Sam’s troubled life. Off screen he was not always as quiet and serious as he looked and, because he was a little older than he appeared, he was beginning to discover girls. He and his grandmother came to live in Manchester for more than six months while we made the first thirteen episodes. I have always thought the lady was something of a heroine.
Doreen Jones also found Barbara Ewing, an actress from New Zealand, to play Sam’s mother and introduced John Price, then at the start of his career, to play her lover, Alan. She assured me that Ray Smith would bury his Welsh accent to play George and he certainly did. Perhaps he was helped by playing opposite a native Yorkshirewoman, Alethea Charlton. We cast Mona Bruce as May and Maggie Jones (now a stalwart of CORONATION STREET) as Polly. The cast also included James Hazeldine who went on to become a pillar of LONDON’S BURNING. Perhaps our greatest brainwave was to offer the part of Jack, Sam’s grandfather, to Michael Goodliffe. In a long career on stage and film, Michael had usually played officers, lawyers and diplomats. Here he was asked to be an embittered Yorkshire miner thrown aside by the industry he has given his life to and I cannot imagine anyone who could have brought more depth and authority to the part.
SAM was made on the same traditional production pattern as A FAMILY AT WAR – for an hour episode we had two or three days of location filming, a week of rehearsal and then two days in the studio with electronic cameras. Because it’s a story about mining we spent a lot of time filming in collieries which had to be found near to our base in Manchester. We seldom went back to Yorkshire where the story is set but we did manage to get there for the opening titles.
It’s a basic imperative for producers to find locations which do not demand too much time or money spent on travelling. Those are expenses which show in the budget but do not show on the screen. When the script demands the seaside or the country, however, as in the episode called A Day to Remember, the cost of travelling is money triumphantly well spent because the results do show on the screen.
At the time of production in the 1970s mining was an industry which had not changed much from the 1930s in which the first series takes place. So scenes at the pit head were not too difficult to recreate. The pit villages were different: an improved standard of living had altered the appearance of them considerably. But eventually we found one, called Gin Pit village, just outside Manchester. It seemed, like Brigadoon, to have been stuck in a time warp and come to life just for us. With some minimal changes, removing television aerials and motor cars, we were back in the Thirties.
It’s sad that there is no director’s credit on the first episode of SAM but, even in the most carefully chosen team, there is occasional friction. I do not believe that it shows on the screen but, in this case, it ran so deep that the director preferred not to take a credit and to leave the series. This was doubly sad because members of the cast often said that that particular director laid some foundations of great value.
The directors who followed built on those foundations and made a happy team. They all shared John Finch’s concern to show a picture of the past which would go some way to explain the pressures which have made us what we are today. It is the particular skill of a great popular writer to tell a story of the changing fortunes of ordinary people which is enriched with that perception